Barack Obama photo

Interview with Steve Kroft of CBS News "60 Minutes"

January 15, 2017

The President. Steve Kroft.

Kroft. Hey!

I got something I want to show you.

The President. What do we got here? Look at that. I got to say that I feel as if I couldn't take this kind of Chicago winter right now.

Kroft. That was 10 years ago.

The President. I think that's right. That's my mother-in-law's house, that block, I think.

Kroft. Nobody around, nobody. Nobody cared.

The President. They didn't. How about that?

It all seems like a long time ago.

Kroft. So what's the difference between this guy and the guy you are now? How much smarter are you than this guy standing on the street corner?

The President. Well, let's see. Obviously I'm grayer, a few more wrinkles. You know I'll be honest with you, Steve. One of the things I'm proud about is that I think my basic character and outlook actually have not changed much. And people who are closest to me will tell you that the guy who came here is the same guy who's leaving. And the reason I take pride for that is one of the things you worry about when you're in the bubble, and there's all this pomp and circumstance and hail to the chief is, do you lose touch with what you thought was important and what brought you here? And I'm proud that I don't think I have lost touch.

Kroft. If you had to write a brief description of this job beginning with wanted-- how would you describe the position? And what are the tasks? And what skills do you think you need?

The President. Thick skin helps.

Kroft. Thick skin, stamina.

The President. Stamina. There is a greater physical element to this job than you would think, just being able to grind it out. And I think your ability to not just mentally and emotionally, but physically be able to say, "We got this. We're going to be OK."

Kroft. Did you learn the executive stuff on the job? Because when we first talked, I must have asked you 100 times. Your only executive experience was running the Harvard Law Review and running your own campaign. Did you have to learn a lot of this on the job?

The President. The campaign was a more significant training ground than I think people give it credit for. By the time I got here, I think I had a pretty good sense of what was required. But the circumstances in which I came in were different than most executives, right? The enterprise was in the midst of a major crisis. And so, those first six months were a fire drill.

I just want to say that the only thing less popular than putting money into banks is putting money into the auto industry. So--

Kroft. But 18 percent are in favor, 76 percent against.

The President. It's not a high number.

Kroft. You're sitting here and you're-- you are laughing about some of these problems. Are people going to look at this and say, "I mean, he's sitting there just making jokes about money--" How do you deal with that?

The President. No, no, no.

Kroft. I mean, wha-- explain the-- the-- the--

The President. Well--

Kroft. The mood in your laughter.

The President. Yeah, I mean, there's gotta be--

Kroft. Are you punch-drunk?

The President. No, no, there's gotta be a little gallows humor to get you through the day.

Kroft. Is there anything that surprised you about this job?

The President. I was surprised and continue to be surprised by the severity of partisanship in this town. And I think that I'd been warned about it. You'll remember, in the campaign back in 2007, 2008, people would say, "Oh, he's being naïve. He thinks that there's no red states and blue states. And wait 'til he gets here." And I will confess that, I didn't fully appreciate the ways in which individual senators or members of Congress now are pushed to the extremes by their voter bases. I did not expect, particularly in the midst of crisis, just how severe that partisanship would be.

Kroft. You came into this office trying to unify the country. You said that many times during the campaign. You wanted to bring people together. You wanted to change Washington. You talked about transformative change. And you became the focal point for some of the division.

The President. I became a lightning rod for some partisan battles. I could not be prouder of the track record we've put together. By almost every measure, the country is significantly better off than when I came in. If you can look back and say, "The economy's better. Our security's better. The environment's better. Our kids' education is better," if you can say that you've made things better, then considering all the challenges out there, you should feel good. But I'm the first to acknowledge that I did not crack the code in terms of reducing this partisan fever.

Kroft. You didn't change Washington.

The President. You know, I changed those things that were in direct-- my direct control. I mean, I-- look, I'm proud of the fact that, with two weeks to go, we're probably the first administration in modern history that hasn't had a major scandal in the White House. In that sense, we changed some things. I would've liked to have gotten that one last Supreme Court justice in there. I'd like the Supreme Court to take a look at--

Kroft. You couldn't even get a hearing.

The President. But we couldn't even get a hearing. Trying to get the other side of the aisle to work with us on issues, in some cases, that they professed, originally, an interest in, and saying to them, "Hold on a second. You guys used to think this was a good idea. Now, just because I'm supporting it, you can't change your mind." But they did. And what that did, I think, made me appreciate. And I've said this before. But it's worth repeating. Because this is on me. Part of the job description is also shaping public opinion. And we were very effective, and I was very effective, in shaping public opinion around my campaigns. But there were big stretches, while governing, where even though we were doing the right thing, we weren't able to mobilize public opinion firmly enough behind us to weaken the resolve of the Republicans to stop opposing us or to cooperate with us. And there were times during my presidency where I lost the PR battle.

Kroft. There is this feeling in-- particularly among people who are among your hardened supporters —

The President. Right.

Kroft. --who feel a little disappointed that they think that you've lost your mojo. That you've lost your ability, that touch you had during the campaign to inspire —

The President. Yeah.

Kroft. — and lead that-- you know, everybody in Washington writes about the sort of aloofness that you have and I`m sure that drives you crazy. That you've let other people define you, that you haven`t sold your successes well enough?

The President. I think it`s a fair argument, you know, I think that over the course of two years we were so busy and so focused on getting a bunch of stuff done that we stopped paying attention to the fact that, you know leadership isn't just legislation, that it's a matter of persuading people and giving them confidence, and bringing them together and setting a tone.

Kroft. Donald Trump, if you take away the particulars, was elected to the office, basically, on the same program that you were, of change. He wants to change Washington.

The President. Well, I mean that's a lot of particulars you're taking away. Fair enough.

Kroft. But do you think--

The President. He was a change candidate.

Kroft. Do you think anybody can change Washington?

The President. I think the American people can change Washington. But I think that it is not going to change, because somebody from on high directs that change. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, are motivated by all kinds of issues. They're sincerely interested in the economy, in terrorism, in social issues. But the one overriding thing they're interested in is getting reelected. And if they think that it's harder for them to get reelected by cooperating with each other, then they won't cooperate.

Kroft. A lot of people think the system is broken, that the system, the political system is broken. That seemed to be the message that you heard throughout this campaign.

The President. Well --

Kroft. And you seem to be saying, in some ways, maybe it is broken.

The President. In the first two years, when I had a strong majority in the House and the Senate, we were as productive as any administration has been since the '60s. I mean, we got a lot done. And so you can get a lot of stuff done through this system. But to sustain a governing majority, that requires an ability for Republicans and Democrats to find some common ground. And right now, the structure of the system is such where it makes it really hard for people to work together. And we mentioned, an example earlier, the Supreme Court nominations. I mean, the fact that Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Republicans, was able to just stop a nomination almost a year before the next election and really not pay a political price for it, that's a sign that the incentives for politicians in this town to be so sharply partisan have gotten so outta hand that we're weakening ourselves.

Kroft. How serious do you think this is? I mean, how stable do you think that the political system, the democratic system, is?

The President. Look, I think it's stable, because the framers, in their wisdom, designed the system so that power's pretty disbursed. You know, we have states. And we have cities. And we have counties. And we have the private sector. And-- and so the country still works even when Washington's dysfunctional. But the problem is that, over time, big pieces of business that have to get done without leadership from Washington, don't get done.

Kroft. I want to go back just briefly on this. But I think, look, this last election, you had a political system. Well, first of all the people elected somebody who went around saying that the system was rigged.

The President. Yeah.

Kroft. You had two of the most unpopular presidential candidates selected by the two parties in history. Doesn't that say something's wrong, something serious is wrong?

The President. It indicates that there is a lot of cynicism out there. It indicates that the corrosive nature of everything from talk radio to fake news to negative advertising has made people lack confidence in a lot of our existing institutions. I think it indicates, at least on the Democratic side, that we've got more work to do to strengthen our grassroots networks. In some ways, the Democratic Party hadn't constructed itself to get that message out to the places it needed to get to. The Tea Party I have huge disagreements with, obviously. But I give them credit for having activated themselves. And they made a difference in terms of moving the Republican Party, in terms of moving the country in a particular direction. It's a direction I disagreed with. But it showed that, in fact, you get involved, if your voice is heard it has an impact.

Kroft. Do you feel the same way about Donald Trump?

The President. Well I think that he clearly was able to tap into a lot of grievances. And he has a talent for making a connection with his supporters that overrode some of the traditional benchmarks of how you'd run a campaign or conduct yourself as a presidential candidate. What will be interesting to see is how that plays out during the course of his presidency. We are moving into an era where a lot of people get their information through tweets and sound bites and some headline that comes over their phone. And I think that there's a power in that. There's also a danger, what generates a headline or stirs up a controversy and gets attention isn't the same as the process required to actually solve the problem.

Kroft. You said you don't know how he's going to do when he governs, but we're in this transition period and one of the first things that he has done in this transition period is to pick a fight with the intelligence agencies. Do you think that that's a smart move?

The President. You're not going to be able to make good decisions without building some relationship of trust between yourself and that community.

Kroft. Do you see that happening?

The President. Not yet, but, you know, again, he hasn't gotten sworn into office yet.

Kroft. You have to admit that this is one of the strangest transitions in history.

The President. It's unusual. I'll agree with that. Well, I--

Kroft. I mean, he--

The President. --and I suspect-- I suspect the president-elect would agree with that. Look--

Kroft. No, I--

The President. --he is an unconventional candidate.

Kroft. Right.

The President. I don't think there's anybody who's run a campaign like his successfully in modern history, not that I can think of. And, as a consequence because he didn't have the supports of many of the establishment in his own party, because he ran sort of an improvisational campaign--

Kroft. Can you run an improvisational presidency?

The President. I don't think so. And so now he's in the process of building up an organization. And well, we'll have to see how that works. And it'll be a test, I think, for him and the people that he's designated to be able to execute on his vision.

Kroft. Look, I think that the country deeply appreciates the fact that you have not spoken clearly, I think, probably what's on your mind in relation to the president-elect. But as you said earlier it's unusual. He seems to have spent a good deal of his time sending out tweets that, you know, that the United States must strengthen and expand its nuclear ability. That Meryl Streep is an overrated Hillary flunky. You're watching this like everybody else. I mean what's going on?

The President. You know, you're going to have to talk to him. But here's what I-- here's what I think. First of all, I think everybody has to acknowledge don't underestimate the guy, because he's going to be 45th president of the United States. The one thing I've said to him directly, and I would advise my Republican friends in Congress and supporters around the country, is just make sure that, as we go forward certain norms, certain institutional traditions don't get eroded, because there's a reason they're in place.

Kroft. I mean you play golf.

The President. I do.

Kroft. Do you ever wish you had a mulligan? I mean in the eight years that you've had, if-- if you had-- if you had three or four mulligans would you use 'em?

The President. Yeah. You know, there's no doubt that probably at least once a week, maybe once a day, I said, "Ah, I should have done that better." I bet at the end of this interview I'll say, "Oh, that's-- that would have been a really good answer for that or this." I think we've done the big stuff right. I think that there are some big, obvious fumbles--

Kroft. Like?

The President. --or shanks if you are using the--

Kroft. Right.

The President. --golf analogy. Well, is a good example.

Kroft. Right.

The President. You know, if you know you got a controversial program, and you're setting up a really big, complicated website, website better work on the first day or first week or first month. The fact that it didn't obviously lost a little momentum. That was clearly a management failure.

Kroft. There is a perception in the Middle East that the United States is in retreat, that we've pulled our troops out of Iraq and ISIS has moved in and taken over much of that territory. The situation in Afghanistan is very precarious and the Taliban is on the march again.

The President. I think it's fair to say, Steve, that if--

Kroft. It's — Let me just finish the thought.

The President. OK.

Kroft. They say you're projecting weakness, not strength--

The President. You're-- you're-- you're-- you're saying "they"--

Kroft. I'm talking about--

The President. You're-- you're not-- you're not citing too many folks, but-- but--

Kroft. No, I'll cite folks if you want me to.

The President. But here's--

Kroft. I'd say the Saudis, I'd say the Israelis, I'd say a lot of our friends in the Middle East.

The President. I--

Kroft. I'd say everybody--

The President. Steve--

Kroft. Everybody in your-- everybody in the Republican Party. You want me to keep going?

The President. Yeah, if you are — if you're citing the Republican Party, I think it's fair to say that there is nothing I've done right over the last seven and half years.

The President. That, that's a red line for us.

Kroft. I want to go back to, like, 2012.

The President. Yeah.

Kroft. I want to-- to two words. Red line.

The President. Yeah.

Kroft. You didn't have to say that.

The President. Yeah.

Kroft. And there have been reports that it wasn't in your speech.

The President. No, it wasn't.

Kroft. That you just sort of ad-libbed it. If you could pull – and it created – it created problems for you with the military people. Would you take those words back? You didn't have to say them.

The President. Yeah, look, if you're putting all the weight on that particular phrase, then in terms of how it was interpreted in Washington, I think you make a legitimate point. I've got to tell you, though, I don't regret at all saying that if I saw Bashar al-Assad using chemical weapons on his people that that would change my assessments in terms of what we were or were not willing to do in Syria.

Kroft. But you didn't say that.

The President. Well--

Kroft. You said you drew the red line.

The President. I-- look, I--

Kroft. I don't want to make too big a deal out of it, but--

The President. I understand--

Kroft. --I think that-- but I--

The President. I-- but that--

Kroft. --you think that that was--

The President. --well--

Kroft. Would you take it back? If you had--

The President. Well--

Kroft. --the opportunity to take it back?

The President. The reason I'm hesitating is not to be defensive. It-- it's simply, Steve, that I would have I think made a bigger mistake if I had said, "Eh, chemical weapons. That doesn't really change my calculus." I think it was important for me as president of the United States to send a message that in fact there is something different about chemical weapons. And, regardless of how it ended up playing, I think-- in the Beltway, what is true is Assad got rid of his chemical weapons. And the reason he got rid of 'em is--

Kroft. For a while.

The President. --because-- well, look-- if 90 percent or 95 percent of those-- chemical stockpiles were eliminated, that's a lot of chemical weapons that are not right now in the hands of ISIL or Nusra or, for that matter, the regime.

Kroft. Israel.

The President. Yeah.

Kroft. A few weeks ago you allowed the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution condemning Israel's settlements in the West Bank. It caused a major fallout between the United States and Israel. Was it your decision to abstain?

The President. Yes, ultimately.

Kroft. Why did you feel like you had to do that?

The President. Well, first of all, Steve, I don't think it caused a major rupture in relations between the United States and Israel. If you're saying that Prime Minister Netanyahu got fired up, he's been fired up repeatedly during the course of my presidency, around the Iran deal and around our consistent objection to settlements. So that part of it wasn't new. And despite all the noise and hullabaloo-- military cooperation, intelligence cooperation, all of that has continued. We have defended them consistently in every imaginable way. But I also believe that both for our national interests and Israel's national interests that allowing an ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians that could get worse and worse over time is a problem. And that settlements contribute. They're not the sole reason for it, but they're a contributing factor to the inability to solve that problem. And--

Kroft. And you wanted to make that point?

The President. Not only did I want to make that point. We are reaching a tipping where the pace of settlements, during the course of my presidency has gotten so substantial that it's getting harder and harder to imagine an effective, contiguous Palestinian state. And I think it would have long-term consequences for peace and security in the region, and the United States, because of our investment in the region, and because we care so deeply about Israel, I think has a legitimate interest in saying to a friend, "This is a problem." And we've said it-- look, it's not as if we haven't been saying it from Day One. We've been saying it for eight years now. It's just that nothing seemed to get a lot of attention.

Kroft. What are you going to miss most about this place?

The President. This walk is one of them.

On the way, he told us that his family life had thrived living and working under the White House roof, but that his wife and daughters didn't feel the same way about life in what Harry Truman called "the finest prison in the world."

Kroft. How do they feel?

The President. Ah, they're ready to go. I mean, the girls, obviously, you know, they are now of an age in which the constraints of Secret Service and bubbles and all that stuff has gotten pretty old. Michelle never fully took to the scrutiny. I mean, she's thrived as a first lady, but it's not her preference. And so--

Kroft. She was the hardest sell.

The President. She was the hardest sell. And she never fully embraced being in the public spotlight, which is ironic, given how good she is. Having said that she would acknowledge, and I certainly feel that we-- we just have a lot of memories here. You know, our kids grew up here. Some of our best friends have been made here in this place. There have been moments that were highlights for us-- that-- you know, are going to be hard to duplicate. So--

Kroft. She's glad you did it though?

The President. She is now. Ahhh, I think I've said this story before. You know, she used to say to our friends, "Barack's exactly the kind of guy I want to be president. I just wish he didn't want to do it when I was married to him." So-- so now that we're--

Kroft. But you're still all right? I mean, everything's OK?

The President. So far, as far as I know. I better check later. Yeah.

Kroft. You have said you're going to take a big vacation. You're going to write your book. You're going to work on your library. You're going to set up a foundation. I mean, that sounds very professorial compared to what you've been doing, like the ivory tower equivalent of puttering around the garden. Are you going to be happy doing this?

The President. Well--

Kroft. Are you--

The President. --look, I'm going to try to get some sleep. And do a little puttering. Because I haven't had a lot of chance to reflect and absorb all this. I do not expect to be behind a desk a lot. I look forward to teaching the occasional class, 'cause I was a professor. And I had fun doing it.

Kroft. You're not going to go to Wall Street, make a lot of money?

The President. I'm not going to Wall Street. The amount of time that I'll be investing in issues is going to be high. But it'll be necessarily in a different capacity.

Kroft. Roosevelt's remembered for Social Security. Eisenhower is remembered for a speech about the military industrial complex. Ten years from now, what are they going to say about you? What are they going to remember you for?

The President. You know, I don't think you know now. I think you're not going to know until 10 years from now. I do think that, you know, saving the economy was a pretty big deal. We did a lot of stuff early that ended up having an impact. I believe that the work we've done in moving our energy future in a cleaner direction is going to stick even if some of the individual steps that we took are reversed by future administrations. I think that it's embedded itself in the economy. And we've been able to organize the international community around it in ways that aren't going to go back. I think we've set the bar with respect to the notion that it is possible to provide health care for people. Now I know that the incoming Congress and administration talks about repealing it. But we've set a bar that shows that this can be done. And that core principle is one that the majority of Americans, including supporters of Donald Trump believe in.

Kroft. What are your memories of this office? What's going to stick in your mind? What are you going to remember from here?

The President. Well I think the number of decisions that you make just with your advisers sitting here-- we've had some big powwows around, is the banking system about to collapse and what do we do about it? To questions of war and peace. So you remember the decisions that were made in this room. The objects in this room-- only a few of 'em I really attach to. I think that I'll always remember the bust of Dr. King. I thought having an American here who represented rhat civic spirit that got me into this office was useful. Over there I've got the original program for the March on Washington that was framed and given to me by a friend. You know, I'll remember the view out this window, because this is where we had our-- the playground that we put in when Malia and Sasha came in. Being able every once in awhile to look out the window and see your daughters during the summer, swinging on that swing set, that made the presidency a little bit sweeter.

Kroft. You feel older?

The President. Yeah. You know, it's interesting. Physically, I feel probably as good as I've ever felt. And I've got as much energy as I ever did. But what you feel after eight years — and I think you'd feel this no matter what, but anytime you have a big transition, it gets magnified – is time passes. Your kids grow up. I think they more than anything are making me feel as if, you know, you want to squeeze everything you got every single day out of this thing. Because it passes quick.

Kroft. You're having trouble letting go?

The President. No. I am looking forward to getting out of the bubble. I am glad that I'm leaving this place at a relatively young age, at 55. So I have the opportunity for a second maybe even a third act in a way that I think would be tougher if I were, you know, the age of some presidents when they left. There's some bittersweet feelings about leaving the people here. 'Cause even though all the team you assemble, you know, you're going to stay in touch with 'em, it's not the same, you know? The band kind of breaks up. And, I think I'm the best president I've ever been right now. And I think the team that is operating right now functions as well as any team that I've had. And so, you know, there is a part of you that thinks, "Man, we're pretty good at this stuff right now." And you hate to see that talent disperse.

Kroft. You going to have reunions?

The President. Well, not I don't think we're go have, like, T-shirts and, you know, all that stuff. That sounds kind of sad. And so my-- so many of my staff is young enough that they're going to do amazing things. And I'm going to be helping them try to do them. So overall though, I have a deep appreciation for the wisdom of this guy right there, George Washington. It's good to get fresh legs in here. I think that it refreshes our democracy. It-- I think sustaining the pace over more than eight years is pretty tough.

Kroft. What are you going to do on the 21st when you wake up? I don't know where you're going to be when you wake up, but you're going to wake up someplace where you're not president.

The President. Well, here's one thing is I'm not setting my alarm. That, I'm certain of. That I am absolutely positive of. I'm going to spend time with Michelle. And, you know, we got some catching up to do. We've both been busy.

Kroft. You're going to be spending your own money, right?

The President. Abs-- well, you know, the truth though is that we've been--

Kroft. Have you been spending your own-- when was the last time you--

The President. I--

Kroft. --spent your own money?

The President. Well, I will say this. You know, I mentioned how I've got a pretty thick skin in this job. You've got to have it. One thing that did kind of get under my craw sometimes was people talking as if when we went on vacation or--

Kroft. Right, right, right, right.

The President. --you know, that people'd be like, "Oh, spending taxpayer money." It's like, "No, no, I actually I'm paying for all of this. The only thing I don't pay for is Secret Service and an airplane."

Kroft. And communications.

The President. And communications, 'cause I don't have any choice. But, you know, we buy our own toilet paper even here in the White House.

Kroft. Really?

The President. You know, we-- it's not free. I'm-- I've got a grocery bill at the end of every month. You know, our toothpaste, our, you know, our orange juice, that all gets paid. But I-- it is true that I don't carry my wallet that often. So I'm going to have some catching up to do in terms of how day-to-day things operate.

Kroft. It's not unusual for a president to issue an observation, "Beware of this. Be wary of that." What is the thing that concerns you most right now, leaving office, about the country?

The President. Making sure that our democracy stays healthy. And making sure that we maintain that sense of solidarity. Um, the thing that has disturbed me most about the Russian hacking episode is-- and the thing that surprised me most has not been the fact of Russian hacking, because Chinese, Russians, Iranians-- a lot of--

Kroft. The United States--

The President. The United-- well, the cyber world is full of information gathering, you know, propaganda, et cetera. I have been concerned about the degree to which, in some circles, you've seen people suggest that Vladimir Putin has more credibility than the U.S. government. I think that's something new.

And I think it's a measure of how the partisan divide has gotten so severe that people forget we're on the same team.

We go into the hallway here…

Kroft. All this stuff is coming with you?

The President. Absolutely. Well, not all of it. It-- I think--

Kroft. Hard packing up?

The President. I think, this famous--

Kroft. This is going to stay there, right?

The President. --painting of The Peacemakers, that goes with the territory.

Kroft. How much stuff are you going to take with you?

The President. Not that much. I mean, you know, we got-- I got books, I got clothes, I got mementos like-- these that, you know, I cherish. We got some furniture that we purchased that, you know, we'll try to use in the new place.

Kroft. Do you like it, the new house?

The President. It's a nice-- it's a nice home. I mean--

Kroft. You've been there--?

The President. Yeah. It'll-- it's temporary. And--

Kroft. Two years?

The President. Yeah. But it feels like a home. You know, it's not crazy big but there's enough room for, you know, a treadmill and some workout equipment in the basement.

Barack Obama, Interview with Steve Kroft of CBS News "60 Minutes" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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